Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, Al Ungerleider would brush off taunts about his Jewish heritage. That insistence on not letting their jibes aggravate him grew into a lifelong mission of fighting intolerance, even as an Army officer fighting to liberate Jewish concentration camps in World War II Germany.
"My mission in life was to convince the world that there was a lot of mistreatment of people," said the 82-year-old Ungerleider, who now lives in Burke. "Most people are afraid to react when they get bullied. They're afraid to rise up. Regardless of what color you are, what size you are, don't let people pick on you."
Ungerleider spoke about his experiences as a Jewish U.S. soldier during World War II to students of James Madison High School in Vienna last Friday. He urged them to confront injustice and intolerance whenever they witness it.
"Don't take a lot of guff from people. You have to stand up," Ungerleider said.
The students, crowded into the Oakton Family Restaurant in Oakton, were juniors and seniors from Matt McGuire's philosophy class and Gideon Sanders' Combating Intolerance class. Ungerleider's talk was part of the "Combating Intolerance in a Fishbowl" series, in which figures involved in the various struggles against intolerance speak with students about their experiences.
"I thought it was a good experience for us to hear a firsthand account, and it helped me get a better understanding," said Madison junior Dana Ganpath.
Ungerleider's involvement in World War II started in 1942, when Ungerleider was drafted into the Army. Like everyone else in the nation, he was incensed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. While he experienced some antagonism initially because of his Jewish heritage, it quickly disappeared in the urgency of the war.
WHEN UNGERLEIDER was assigned to fight in Europe, he was briefed about the concentration camps, so he knew a little of what to expect.
"It's hard to get people behind a war effort until something dramatic happens," Ungerleider said.
Toward the end of the war, he was in one of the units that helped liberate a concentration camp in Bavaria. He saw malnourished people clinging to life.
"It was so horrible to look at these people, the conditions they were in," Ungerleider said. "It just shows you that in this world, you can run into intolerance frequently."
What disturbed him more was that some of those interned, like the prison captains, were aggressive toward their fellow prisoners, just like their German Nazi captors.
"Even within the camp, there was intolerance," Ungerleider said. "People thought they were bosses. ... I think everything in life changes you. You might be the boss, but remember those under you are people also."
Although in many cases the camp guards escaped as soon as they could, Ungerleider agreed that the governments of those countries involved need to prosecute Nazi war criminals even today. In the U.S. Department of Justice, an office still exists to prosecute such crimes.
"If they committed a criminal act, I'd say let's go after them," said Ungerleider.
He supported the integration of the U.S. military in 1948 and fought with blacks and other minorities during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"People have to treat people as people. Treat them as equal, and don't try to convince the world otherwise," Ungerleider said.
UNGERLEIDER ROSE to the rank of full colonel by the time he retired in 1978. After leaving the Army, Ungerleider settled into his home in Burke, and he regularly relates his war stories to students and civic groups. He has three children and six grandchildren.
"We feel blessed with all the children and grandchildren growing up," he said.
If Ungerleider encountered a Nazi officer today, he would put him on the defensive to determine his motives.
"I would first ask them why they were doing what they were doing," Ungerleider said, who added that he would ask them if they treated people around them as best as they could.
Ungerleider is one of several speakers who have talked to Madison students about intolerance throughout the school year. The Combating Intolerance class, now in its 12th year at Madison, aims to show students different situations where people overcame intolerance.
During the unit on the Holocaust, students will watch Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," a film about the Holocaust, and read the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoon books "Maus 1" and "Maus 2."
On Thursday, March 25, students will listen to speaker Jeff Menkin of the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice, who will talk about his area of expertise in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals.
Other topics that the class has studied are civil rights, disabilities, and gender issues.
"We try to open the kids' eyes to it," said Sanders. "Finding a solution is like finding world peace. ... If we break it down piece by piece, slowly and eventually we'll be able to reach our goal."